Paul Coutts made an emotional home return for Sheffield United after an 11-month injury nightmare and helped put the Blades back on top of the Championship.
Midfielder Coutts suffered a horrific broken leg in United’s 3-1 win at Burton Albion in November last year, a result which took Blades to the Championship summit.
But promoted United failed to maintain their lofty position without playmaker Coutts, eventually finishing 10th.
Manager Chris Wilder, though, spent wisely in the summer bringing in Ollie Norwood to partner John Fleck in United’s midfield.
It meant that Saturday’s narrow win over Hull City – when Coutts made his first appearance at Bramall Lane in 11 months as a second-half substitute – was all the sweeter for the 30-year-old as the Blades leapfrogged Yorkshire rivals Middlesbrough and Leeds United to assume the leadership once again 11 months after that unforgettable night in Burton.
“It’s been a tough year,” admitted Coutts. “It’s probably taken a bit longer than I would have hoped for.
“Hopefully it makes you stronger as you go forward. Everyone at the club, from the fans to the manager, medical staff, fitness coach, team-mates, they have all been superb and patient with me and pushed me along. It was good to get back out there.
“I was quite nervous to go back out there, it’s been a long time. I just wanted to get that done, and focus on getting back in the side, rather than the sideshow of making a return.”
Coutts had only been on the pitch four minutes after replacing the impressive Mark Duffy when David McGoldrick netted the 70th-minute winner after a controversial penalty award.
It capped a great week for United – three successive wins after trips to Millwall and Blackburn Rovers, the latter where Coutts made his return as a late substitute – which sees them head into the international break as leaders.
“The boys have been going along well,” said Coutts. “It’s been a great week, the boys are playing ever so well, so long may it continue.
“I think a lot of teams are coming to frustrate us, match our shape up, and sit off us.
“The experience we have from last season is pretty important, to stay patient and for the crowd to stay patient with us. The goals will come.
“The gaffer has added quality to the ranks – McGoldrick scored again – and we have experienced boys.
“We are definitely a better squad than we were last season.”
It was a game of few chances, but Duffy was at the centre of most of United’s best moves. The midfielder teed up McGoldrick, but the pass fell behind the striker, leaving him off-balance as he spooned the ball over David Marshall’s crossbar.
Duffy dragged a low shot wide then a clever back-heel slipped in Enda Stevens, but the wing-back shot tamely at Marshall.
Stevens also went close to seizing on an error from Reece Burke close to goal, but Marshall pounced on the loose ball.
Hull started the second half well and Nouha Dicko, a first-half substitute for Fraiser Campbell –who limped off with a groin strain – forced Dean Henderson into a good block at his near post. If that save was impressive, the key moment came on 68 minutes. Henderson – the goalkeeper on loan from Manchester United, who was subsequently named man of the match – produced a stunning save, throwing himself low to his left to keep out Markus Henriksen’s stinging header.
Its value soon became apparent as moments later Tommy Elphick was judged to have dragged Jack O’Connell to the ground from Norwood’s corner and McGoldrick converted from the penalty spot. It was a “dubious” penalty according to Tigers manager Nigel Adkins, a point with which his counterpart Wilder vehemently disagreed.
Television replays show referee Peter Bankes having words with the grappling players before the corner came in, so when O’Connell fell to the floor the official had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
To rub salt into Hull’s wounds, the visitors felt they were denied a penalty of their own for a similar incident at the opposite end of the field as defeat sent them bottom of the Championship.
“It was disappointing,” said Hull defender Burke. “The ref has killed us with the decision in the end. He’s not been fair in both boxes. But now we know we are in a relegation battle, so it’s a hard one to take.
“We were comfortable and I never thought that they were going to score from open play although they did have a few chances.
“We were solid, but we are lacking that little bit of luck.
“I am looking at the players in the dressing room and we are all disappointed and arguing, all showing our emotions because it is hard to take.
“But it hurts being at the bottom, so I am expecting a change around when we come back from the international break.”